Tuesday, 29 March 2011

PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720: why we're in for a long wait

UPDATE: Check out our latest article Xbox 720 rumours: what you need to know.
Tradition dictates there will at some point be an Xbox 720, or 1080, or whatever foolishness Microsoft's marketing department decides is a suitable name for the company's third games console.
Tradition would also seem to dictate it'll be any day now – we're four years on from the release of the Xbox 360, which was itself released four years after the original Xbox.
The same, theoretically, is true of a Playstation 4, though a little less pressingly so. Its infamous predecessor is now three years old, and arrived six years after the launch of the still-existent Playstation 2. So news of a new Sony console should be hitting the horizon very soon, right?
This is the console generation that breaks the cycle, the regular hardware refresh from competing manufacturers that became a trend when Sega followed up the Master System with the Genesis/Megadrive and Nintendo followed suit by replacing the NES with the SNES.
2011 has oft been touted as the year we'll see the Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox 720 consoles, but that's now looking increasingly unlikely. The Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 are only just getting started.
There are three key reasons for the extension of the current console generation. The first, is, perhaps, the most obvious – the prevailing financial climate. Now is not the time to be introducing a new electronic luxury item - and not simply because consumers will balk at spending a few hundred quid when most of them already have a capable gaming machine with a slew of £40-50 games.
"Both Microsoft and Sony are under enormous pressure", explains Nicholas Lovell, Founder of games consultancy Gamesbrief.
"Microsoft from Google and Apple as it tries to work out how Windows and Office fit into a web-based, cloud-computing future, and Sony because it needs to transition from being an engineering company to a modern intellectual-property company. Investors have not got the appetite for further, expensive wars to fight for what may well be a shrinking market: the hardcore gaming market."
New controllers
Which brings us to point two – the pursuit of a different gaming market. On the near horizon is Project Natal for the Xbox 360 – a plug-in box capable of, reportedly, breathtaking motion, face and voice recognition.
Prohect natal
PROJECT NATAL: A demo at the recent GamesCom event
It's intended as a total controller replacement, shifting from button-presses to naturalistic body gestures - a riposte to Nintendo's Wii. From the Sony camp comes the PlayStation Motion Controller, which looks uncomfortably like an obscure sex toy but, similarly, is a gesture-based device intended to attract a less hardcore gaming audience to the PS3.
These new controllers were not made lightly; they are not experimental gimmicks made to please gadget fetishists. They exist because the Wii has proven that there is a huge, huge audience out there that consoles have traditionally left untapped, and one that doesn't care about bleeding-edge graphics or even The Next Part In The Epic [insert violence-based sci-fi franchise here] Saga.
"I absolutely believe that Natal and the motion controller are part of a strategy to extend the lifecycle," says industry analyst Nicholas Novell. "Nintendo has convincingly demonstrated that graphical fidelity and processing power are not the only battlegrounds for consumers.
"Accessible, intuitive gameplay is key. Historically, the jump to the next generation has been driven, at least partially, by the need to offer gamers the latest technology: I believe that the latest technology is now the controller, not the visuals or underlying technology."

Casual games on the rise
One might balk at the idea of the raft of mini-game-based, throwaway and film-licensed Wii titles being the future of gaming, but till receipts tell the tale.
Microsoft has already dipped its feet into such waters with casual-friendly fare such as Lips and You're In The Movies, while the long-standing success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band is because of a similar appeal.
Guitar hero
PICK UP AND PLAY: Microsoft has followed Nintendo down the casual games route
It's not pushing buttons on a handheld device – it's doing something that much closer to real life. "I don't have a sense of price for Natal and the Motion Controller," says Lovell concerning the potential appeal of the impending hardware add-ons that essentially mean a PlayStation 3.5 and Xbox 540, "but if Rock Band and Guitar Hero can establish themselves with very high price points, I imagine that Natal can.
"The crucial caveat is that the marketing hook for Rock Band/Guitar Hero is obvious - you just have to see the peripherals and you know exactly what to do with them. I hope that Natal can get its message across so easily, and have a compelling piece of software to convince people to buy it. In the end, it's the software that sells hardware, and not the other way round."
Graphics arms race over?
In other words, and to tackle the third reason behind the extension of the PS3/360 generation, the graphics arms race appears to finally be over – for now, at least. "All the growth markets in terms of gaming usage (iPhone, Wii, browser-games, Facebook games) have low-quality graphics compared to a PS3 or Xbox 360, but offer compelling gameplay," says Lovell.
Indeed, the greatest successes, by a dramatic margin, of the industry are Wii Sports, The Sims, Bejewelled, Runescape and World of Warcraft – hardly photoreal worlds.
"It seems to me that the marketing departments at Sony and Microsoft forgot that the "overwhelming computing power of 2 teraflops" [quote from the PS3 launch press release - PDF] is only important to a tiny fraction of the marketplace. Furthermore, as the graphical bar gets higher, the uncanny valley problem gets worse, the costs go up exponentially but the addressable market barely increases at all - in fact, it may even go down as mass-market consumers are put off by the complex control systems which seem to go hand in hand with high graphical quality."
Added to that is the cost of making a modern videogame – which now averages around $30m, approximately ten times as much as a game from the last console generation.
The recent industry response to this has been to raise the price tag for consumers – spearheaded by Activision's impending goliath Modern Warfare 2, set to sell for a frightening £55.
A brand new console would only increase development costs – and given the recession has caused sales of videogame hardware, software and accessories to fall 29% since this time last year throwing a next generation of console into the mix would be tantamount to insanity.
Sony's most recent tack has, in fact, been the opposite – attempting to counter dwindling sales and acclaim for the PS3 by relaunching it as the smaller, cheaper PS3 Slim.
PS3 slim
SLIMMED DOWN: The PS3 Slim against the original PS3
There's no word as yet on a smaller 360, but possibly less need for one, as unlike the PS3 the Xbox 360 is already seen as an affordable, everyday console. What is much more likely is a Blu-Ray add-on to shore up its movie-watching clout – which is another element of these consoles' likely continuance throughout some of the next decade.
A console in the cloud?
The Xbox 360 and the PS3 will most certainly be around for several years yet. For a hint at to what their successors' hardware might involve, see 'Everything you need to know about the next Xbox' and 'Everything you need to know about the PS4'.
Nicholas Lovell has a slightly different theory, one based on the current trend in desktop computing: "David Lau-Kee said 'PS4 will be a browser.' (See 'Is the PS Cloud the PlayStation 4?'). He may be biased as non-executive director at Unity, but it's an interesting point. Personally, I do believe that the majority of gaming is going into the cloud, and that the consoles are much more about control mechanisms (and DRM for the publishers) that about the future of processing games."
Even with this generation, downloadable games and downloadable games content has taken off enormously. Battlefield 1943 recently broke records by being the first download-only console games to achieve a million sales.
The burning question, of course, remains: when will this console generation end and the new one begin?
Well, much depends on how successful Natal, the Motion Controller and the Wii's various accessories prove to be – the 360, PS3 and Wii could well live until well into the next decade.
"I would expect this cycle to continue for at least three to five years from now, it may even be longer," says Lovell.
Without a doubt, the next step is well in motion, somewhere in the depths of Microsoft and Sony's labs – but given we're on the cusp of a new era of gaming, and one that stems from existing machines, there's scarcely a need for the PS4 and Xbox 720 right now.

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